Wondering what to read on holiday? Check out my Summer Reads 2016.
This time I didn’t wait for a hundred people to ask if I’d read the latest publishing sensation, Maestra, by L S Hilton. The level of hype surrounding this book, the first in a trilogy, is something I generally find extremely off-putting. Due for release in 36 countries and as a Hollywood film, it’s being marketed as the most shocking thriller you’ll read this year. I have read the books it’s being compared to (Fifty Shades, Gone Girl, Girl on a Train, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) and if you ask me the hype – along with the potential to shift copies – is pretty much all they have in common. So why, given that thrillers are not my thing, did I rush to read this on the day of release? Like my own debut novel Paris Mon Amour, this one involves the art world, sex and France so naturally I was intrigued. (I’m obsessed with novels with an art connection.) The fact that the author is an academic historian and has published non-fiction titles (as Lisa Hilton) gave me confidence that she would know how to write, and she certainly does.
The number one requirement of a first person narrative is that the reader should in some sense be willing to invest in their worldview for the duration – I don’t think it matters in what sense. There may be readers who strongly identify and empathise with lowly auction house assistant Judith Rashleigh as she pursues her ruthless ambition, homicidal tendencies and insatiable sexual appetite around Europe on the trail of a major art fraud. I wasn’t one of them, but Judith does raise questions which, whilst surpassing any character development which takes place on the page, are a testament to the author’s mastery of nuance. The dissonance between Judith’s perception of herself and alternative interpretations is fascinating territory – I had to laugh when she says I’d been grassed up by a fucking Svetlana whom I’d last seen with her gob full of a stranger’s prick.
It is hard to approach a book of this profile without expectations and doubly so when the reader is conscious of an attempt to second-guess their response, which runs the risk of diluting it. (I touched on this recently in another post.) What is it here that we supposed to find so exceptionally shocking? The level of violence? It’s sickening but completely par for the course in the crime and thriller genres. The portrayal of sex as a recreational, communal activity devoid of emotional attachment?
Or is it because the protagonist is a woman? I don’t know why I bothered phrasing that as a question. It shouldn’t be a revelation that a woman can be resourceful, ambitious, intelligent – even amoral and sadistic. Nor should it still come as a surprise that women can need, want, enjoy sex as much as men, yet that too is often seen as such. In some ways this is a feminist book but I found some aspects troubling and problematic, such as Judith’s deployment of her sexuality to get men to shower her with money and gifts and her attitude to other women, although her attitude to people in general is worrying. But that makes it complex, and complex is good.
There’s also a decent plot, the art world is well depicted as are the various locations. However, you may find your patience stretched by the endless name-dropping of brands from clothes, shoes, jewellery, cars, furniture, cosmetics…
I’ve saved the question on everybody’s lips until last. Is this the new Fifty Shades of Grey? Well, I only read the first one, but I’d have to say no. If you want a well-written story, this is better. If you want a heroine with some backbone, even if you can’t stand her, this is better. If you want eye-wateringly explicit sex scenes that leave nothing to the imagination (they’re not aimed at the place between your ears) – this is for you. Put it this way, I don’t think anyone much is going to be discussing the paintings, lovely as they are. Curiously, the sex isn’t that central to the plot, nor is it especially illuminating of character since you get the message early on that Judith is up for anything.
But having a prologue which consists of a flash-forward to one of the most graphic scenes at a partouze sex party gives the reader a ‘taste’ of things to come. Foreshadowing prologues have become overused in all genres but often to good effect in thrillers in the interests of suspense. Therefore the choice made here, in a thriller, seems significant and to suggest that the sex is the main attraction. This puts pressure on how it is done. This is very much a matter of personal taste, of course, and since mine favours subtlety, the crudeness of tone in a novel so otherwise preoccupied with sophistication was jarring, more so as it progresses. A pleasingly hot encounter with a Norwegian boat captain ends up feeling like a picnic with Snow White compared to later scenes that would make Rabelais proud. I was pre-programmed by the marketing not to be shocked but some of the description was vulgar in its sheer gratuitousness and I wish someone had made what shouldn’t have been an agonising editorial decision between come and cum.
The critical radar may have engaged (to be honest, it rarely switches off) but I did enjoy Maestra. It was a pacy, entertaining and yes, sexy, read that will make people on beaches and public transport all over the world glad they have an e-reader. Just don’t look over your shoulder.
Will you be reading Maestra?
My post on Sex Scenes in Fiction from a few years ago is one of the most popular on the blog – you can read it here.
*UPDATE* And there’s more – I’ve just written something new on the subject for Red Magazine Online on What the French taught me about sex (and writing it).